The Dumbarton Bridge was the first to span San Francisco Bay

The Dumbarton Bridge is not a landmark that raises blood pressure.

The architecture is aggressively functional and almost devoid of memorable views, the drive spans wetlands and connects the lowest key of Bay Area communities: Newark and Menlo Park. Even the name Dumbartonsounds like the bad guy’s sidekick in a Disney movie.

But there was a time when Dumbarton was nothing short of a sensation. Upon its debut on January 27, 1927, it was the first vehicular bridge to span San Francisco Bay and at 1.63 miles the longest highway bridge in the world. Conceived when San Franciscans still traveled on dirt roads to San Jose, the Dumbarton Bridge was a symbol of the future.

On the day the Dumbarton opened, The Chronicle published a special 10-page section, calling it an engineering marvel that would change the region.

“A ribbon of steel and concrete stretching more than a mile to connect the shores of the San Francisco Peninsula and Alameda counties brings today a reality that for decades was just a dream—a highway bridge across the bay. from San Francisco,” the lead article stated.

January 15, 1927: Some of the first vehicles cross Dumbarton Bridge hours after it opened.

Charles M. Miller/ Especially for the Chronicle

The bridge began as a victory over bureaucracy.

Originally intended as a public infrastructure project, Dumbarton was mired in delays caused by state leaders battling over competing plans and shortages of steel and construction workers during World War I. And its usefulness required some imagination. The span was completed before the Bayshore Freeway existed as a bridge link along the western edge of the bay; that portion of Highway 101 was not completed until 1937.

In the end it went private. Local real estate agent FH Drake and banker Frank K. Towne founded the Dumbarton Bridge Company and sold shares in $100 pieces to meet the $2.5 million construction budget, hoping to recoup it with nickel tolls. (It took 16 years to cover the original investment.) The bridge gets its name from Dumbarton Point on the eastern shore, itself named because the marshland reminded someone of Dumbarton, Scotland.

The first Dumbarton Bridge was more “Bridges of Madison County” than Golden Gate Bridge. It was 6,500 feet long with a drawbridge, yet only 7 feet wide, with enough room for one car in each direction, and no hard shoulder.

December 26, 1922: A San Francisco Chronicle art department drawing of a possible future on the peninsula with three vehicle bridges, including the Dumbarton (which was completed in 1927).

December 26, 1922: A San Francisco Chronicle art department drawing of a possible future on the peninsula with three vehicle bridges, including the Dumbarton (which was completed in 1927).

Chronicle archive

But for the South Bay, it was revolutionary. The bridge intersected 25 miles of commuter traffic from Berkeley to Palo Alto.

“Span Boon to Football Fans,” read a 1927 Chronicle headline. “Saved 16 miles by spanning the bay.”

Cal and Stanford boosters weren’t the only ones celebrating. Realtors were excited and announced new developments in Redwood City and Atherton with hundreds of new homes. San Carlos seemed designed in response to the bridge. (“San Carlos, Lusty Peninsula Infant, to take full advantage of Bridge Over Bay,” read a hyperbolic Chronicle headline.)

Heartfelt congratulations were sent from all over the bay. San Francisco Mayor Jim Rolph joined industry and union leaders in public praise, clearly inspired by the potential being unlocked.

“There will be more bridges,” read a full-page ad from the San Francisco Port. “The day can now be foreseen when San Francisco’s transportation chains can be completely broken and discarded.”

As a symbol of progress, the Dumbarton was a winner. But as a bridge, it soon failed, especially after the construction of Highway 101 and Interstate 280, and cities like San Carlos grew from lecherous babies with homes scattered across orchards to overcrowded suburbs.

An aerial view of the Dumbarton Bridge in 1976, showing the drawbridge up and increasing traffic.

An aerial view of the Dumbarton Bridge in 1976, showing the drawbridge up and increasing traffic.

California Department of Transportation

The drawbridge was only three meters above sea level during high tide, so even the smallest sailboat passing through it had to stop for four minutes. When Silicon Valley came into existence in the 1970s, the bridge was just two lanes of traffic. One Ford Pinto failure could put thousands of potential Hewlett-Packard and Atari employees in a deadlock.

State and local leaders campaigned for a new bridge, but this time the locals were the hindrance, not the driving force for progress. In one of the most Atherton moves in the city’s slow-growth-obsessed history, in 1975 residents formed Citizens Against the Dumbarton Bridge to sue the state, claiming that “the new bridge would dump so much traffic into the city that it Atherton’s semi-rural quality.”

A judge quickly dismissed the lawsuit for “vague legal reasoning.”

Atherton, Menlo Park, and Palo Alto managed to slow large numbers of Newark residents down from the dreaded invasion, but they couldn’t stop them. A new bridge was completed in 1982 with a total of six lanes of traffic and 85 feet of clearance eliminating the need for a drawbridge. The second Dumbarton cost $100 million, more than four times the original budget.

Traffic heads west on State Route 84 over the Dumbarton Bridge in Menlo Park, California, on February 28, 2019.

Traffic heads west on State Route 84 over the Dumbarton Bridge in Menlo Park, California, on February 28, 2019.

Yalonda M. James/The Chronicle

There was no special section in The Chronicle. But the paper did send one reporter for the final spectacle of the first Dumbarton. The original bridge stood next to the new one for a few years. Then, on September 23, 1984, the bridge was rigged with precision explosives and blown away.

There was no sense of swelling pride; more like morbid curiosity. More than 1,000 residents gathered to witness the demolition. Men drank six packs of beer and a viewer put the 49ers game on a battery-operated television. After a long delay, they cheered as the Dumbarton disappeared in a plume of fire and smoke and collapsed into the bay.

The Dumbarton Bridge is no longer a symbol of the future. It is now the shortest and arguably the least celebrated crossing across the bay. (The San Mateo-Hayward Bridge, just a few miles to the north, is seven miles long.) As far as we can tell, it never appeared on a postcard.

But it deserves more credit as a symbol of the past and the present. Parts of the old bridge were reused as fishing piers. Modern Dumbarton in 1982 preceded Richmond Bridge as the first bay to have a full cycle path.

February 1, 1927: One of the first photographs of the Dumbarton Bridge, two weeks after it was completed.

February 1, 1927: One of the first photographs of the Dumbarton Bridge, two weeks after it was completed.

Chronicle file photo

And it has two great movie moments: a location for the 1971 film ‘Harold and Maude’ and a major plot point in the 1992 Robert Redford film ‘Sneakers’.

(“Sneakers” is the next Total SF movie night, playing at the Balboa Theater on Thursday, August 25. Watch everyone cheer when the Dumbarton gets its name.)

So consider this an unironic and heartfelt salute to the Dumbarton Bridge – a pretty drab bay that has quietly done the job for nearly a century.

Peter Hartlaub (he/him) is the culture critic of The San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @PeterHartlaub

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